The Arctic Is A New Battleground

As the ice melts, the world’s powers fight to secure power in the world’s most valuable trade routes.

Melting Arctic ice
Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

In late 2019, it emerged that the President of the United States had floated the idea of buying Greenland to the Danish premier.

Needless to say, very few people actually took the proposal seriously, even less seemed to consider, just why would an American President want to buy Greenland?

The US, of course, does have precedent for the purchase of northern territories to secure areas of interest to American power. Alaska, for instance, was purchased from the Russian empire in the mid-1800’s for 7.2 million dollars (121 million in today’s money).

One of the key motivations for that purchase was so the United States could gain a dominant position in the North Pacific and another means of entry into British Canada should war between the fledgling United States and the British resume.

The fact that Alaska then turned out to be rich with gold and, later on, with oil which helped spur American economic development was only a happy bonus.

Firstly, the obvious point is that Greenland is rich in resources which will play a key role in the global economy of the 21st century.

Uranium, needed as a stop-gap for the transition to a post-carbon world order, is plentiful within the territory, alongside a slew of valuable metals used in industrial manufacturing, such as zinc, copper and bauxite.

However, the major prize is so-called “Rare-Earth elements.”

The global quantity of these elements is frustratingly small yet they are vital for the construction and building of advanced computer chips, used in everything from next-generation smartphones to advanced weapon systems.

Fate happens to have placed the vast majority of these minerals in China, a rival to US power who has threatened to use their dominance over rare-earth elements as a form of economic warfare against Washington. The next largest identified sources exist in Afghanistan, a country with no functioning state, and throughout the central Asia steppes, countries within the Russian sphere of influence.

The United States desperately needs another source of these minerals if it is to continue it’s technological dominance throughout the incoming industrial revolution.

At present, most of Greenland’s resources are hard to access owing to it’s rugged topography, however it is inevitable that mining technology will advance. American elites are betting that when this happens, much of the valuable resources under the surface of Greenland will become available and when they do it had better be in their hands and not that of a rival.

This mineral wealth is important, but like Alaska, the real reason for US interest in the province is to do with it’s access to the Northern (and receding ice) of the Arctic.

Trump made his money in real estate and a key aspect of what makes land valuable is its geographical proximity to key infrastructure. In the context of geopolitics, key infrastructure is trade routes and the areas through which resources of global economic importance, such as industrial metals and fuel, are transported. The United States depends upon sea-lanes for it’s global dominance, and climate change is birthing new and valuable routes of trade.

Global warming means that the arctic is melting at a rate of 13% every decade. While the entirety of Arctic ice won’t vanish for a very long time, it will be substantially reduced. Areas in which continental ice has previously been too thick to smash through with ice-breaker ship technology can now be accessed and this could lead to a network of waterways emerging across the ice-sheet which will form the routes for shipping conveys.

The current key choke-points of global trade are man-made canals such as the Suez Canal in Egypt which is estimated to reduce travel time for shipping which would be forced to go around the southern tip over Africa into only 13 hours. The Panama Canal on the Central American isthmus is just as time saving.

Efficient travel is vital in a global economy which runs on ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing model and countries which can exercise influence over who can use these points (for instance, by denying access to ships with certain flags or registration plates) will find themselves in a powerful position.

The Great Game was a series of moves with which the Russian and British empires competed for influence within the hinterland of Eurasia throughout the 18th century. The players change but the game doesn’t, the drive to secure power and influence over rivals has remained just as key to modern geopolitics as it was back then, and will remain a part of the human experience long into the future.

A fifth of Russia’s Eurasian territory reaches into the receding Arctic. Image from eurasiangeopolitics.

In this iteration, the status quo power of the US finds itself facing a Russia determined to take back the power which was lost at the end of the Cold War.

Putin has made it clear that he considers climate change an opportunity for Russia to benefit at the expense of it’s rivals. It is also true that of all major powers, Russia is probably the nation which is least adversely affected by, and may even gain some advantages from, climate change.

There are very few major Russian population centres which will be flooded by rivers bursting their banks, like will happen in India, or the USA to devastating effect. It will not experience the spread of desserts and wholesale destruction of crops that the Middle East will experience.

While it will see Siberian infrastructure sink, that is nothing compared to what could be gained from it. In fact, the melting of Siberian permafrost could lead Russia to become a major exporter of wheat into the world market, thereby making it the breadbasket of a hungry and populous developing world. Never mind that this ice melting will unleash immense amounts of damaging methane into the atmosphere.

Previously backwater and ignored cities and townships in Russia’s frozen northern periphery have suddenly become potential points via which Russia can export it’s resources. The northward rush of the ice has exposed the newly christened ‘Northern Sea Route’ which connects the Russian east with all it’s valuable resources to Europe and North America.

Russian strategy, especially since the fall of the USSR, has been to make itself vital to the global economic system by acting as a source of it’s raw materials, thus also exercising a degree of influence over the countries it supplies to. A new trade route on it’s border only strengthens it’s hand in doing this.

At present, the Russians and Chinese are allied as both parties have judged that only together can they hope to balance against the American world order. I’ve written previously that this alliance won’t last. The Russians are aware that international alliances are fickle and are looking for other industrial centres they can export their resources to. The Northern Sea Route looks to shorten delivery times to destinations across North America and into central Europe, particularly Germany, aswell as Japan, an island with a massive economy but a complete lack of raw resources to exploit.

Climate change effect on the arctic will create opportunities for Russia
A visual portrayal of the time that could be saved by the Northern Sea Route and how Russia could benefit from it. Image from The Economist.

The hungry Chinese state has also taken notice of the receding ice. China, despite not being situated near the north pole, has more interests than most in acquiring a stake of the arctic circle.

The main concern of the Chinese Communist Party has always been how it can transition it’s country from an agrarian economy to an industrial mass production-state then to an information and computer powerhouse suited for the 21st century, without causing major political disruption within China. This is at the core of the CCP’s “ Made in China 2025” development plan.

Such a transition would normally take centuries for a country to complete. The CCP is hoping it can achieve this in decades by mustering the resources of the Chinese state and it’s associated corporations towards this singular goal.

To do this will require massive and systemic exploitation of natural resources, something which has been a feature of Chinese state-capitalism since the early 90’s. This intense extraction has already led to large-scale environmental change in the Chinese mainland.

Deserts, including the Gobi and Outer Mongolia have spread at a rapid pace and large swathes of northern China have been changed by the industrial-scale mining operations being enacted there.

China’s once fertile forest regions have been decimated, and there are questions of just how much exploitation the Chinese mainland can take in the name of production and economic power.

A booming economy is the ‘carrot’ by which the CCP controls a restive and demanding population undergoing rapid urbanisation. Therefore, to prevent ecological collapse in mainland China and stave off a faltering economy, the CCP will turn north for another means of getting these resources.

The Communist Party is more than willing to use military force and population replacement to secure these vital resources. One of the key motivators for the invasion and slow destruction of Tibet and it’s people was to secure the region’s plentiful supplies of fresh water for Chinese cities, for instance.

This is also prompting Chinese movement into Africa and the creation of the Belt and Road initiative. One of the history’s most ambitious infrastructure projects, when completed it will bind Eurasia into a single web of supply, with China at it’s centre.

“(The Arctic contains) 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources.” — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from Maritime Executive

The quote above is from a speech by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, throughout which he compared the emerging Arctic space to the South China Sea. Essentially, he was saying he expected it’s once unspoiled natural beauty to become a crowded and competitive space filled with a multinational assemblage of trade and military ships.

Pompeo is right to signal this, as the current actions of all the major powers indicates that this is the future of the arctic circle.

Environmentalists will notice a disheartening fact about this story, namely that instead of acknowledging climate change and halting it, the world’s superpowers have realised it’s effects and are planning to take advantage of it.

The US is motivated by a fear that it will be replaced by a coalition of rivals and is seeking to deny these competitors potential influence in the region. The global revisionist leaders in Moscow and Beijing are motivated by domestic fears of their own populations and have judged that to stave off any instability the arctic must be exploited for their benefit.

This says nothing of the numerous smaller states situated in the global sub-arctic region which fear being sidelined and will seek to band together to ensure their interests aren’t ignored by the great powers.

I wrote previously that I expected Scotland to become independent and chart it’s course as a key node in the global energy network by taking advantage of favourable conditions for renewable energy. The growing prominence of the arctic as a ‘new Mediterranean’ will see towns in Scotland’s far north gain a new prominence, as they become refueling and supply stop-gaps for global shipping on the way to Europe.

The same is true for Canada, where policy-makers have repeatedly indicated their desire to raise the country’s population to 100 million by the start of the next millennium. If this goal is achieved by the mass importing of people from the developing world or Asia, and the ice continues to recede at the rate it is currently is, we will likely see Canadian population distribution shift northwards as people are moved en-mass to take advantage of the economic growth generated from the arctic trade routes.

While nations such as these will fight to have their interests in the arctic respected, the truth is that environmental concerns will be secondary to the concerns of economics and geopolitical competition.

However, there is some hope for the climate, ironically from the very people who are currently most damaging it.

As said, power elites are motivated by their self-interest and large-scale environmental destruction of the apocalyptic variety is utterly antithetical to the interests of the single world hegemon, the United States.

At present, the US is not being adversely affecting by the altering of the climate, however when it is it will alter course in record time. The American Armed Forces may be some of the biggest producers of carbon in the world but their researchers in the Pentagon and DoD have repeatedly warned that large-scale climate disaster will destroy their ability to function across the globe. This is not something the US will tolerate and it has already spurred a slow adjustment towards alternative means of power.

While people may find the current occupant of the White House woefully lacking in this regard, readers need to realise that a single person, however bombastic, cannot alter the course of an entire state apparatus. The hundreds of thousands of people who occupy the key positions in the nexus of American power realise that America has nothing to gain from denying the changing climate and the overwhelming trend indicates a movement towards renewable and low carbon, including nuclear, forms of power.

The costs of low-carbon technologies are constantly declining, while the efficiencies are rising exponentially.

Alongside this, research from DARPA and the DoD will produce a myriad of ways for the American military to fuel itself. Just as the internet and GPS were technologies birthed in military environments which went on to radically transform the civilian world, so too will these new sources of power.

Eventually, the economy of the world’s global imperial power will be based on increasingly affordable and efficient low-carbon technology, and other states, eager to remain competitive, will also undergo this transition.

Environmentalists can atleast take some solace in knowing that this transition is inevitable, however it will not come in time to prevent the decline of arctic ice.

While oil will become less attractive and largely undisturbed under the arctic sea-bed, the numerous other minerals that lie within the arctic, especially rare-earth minerals and industrial metals, particularly as mass AI is rolled out and urbanisation enters it’s most intense phase. Aswell, the global trend towards integration indicates an intensification of shipping all across the Earth. As that happens, the prospects of time and money saving trade routes throughout the heating arctic will become even harder to resist.

The future of the climate is mixed, at best. The arctic will prove too tempting to leave alone in the future and likely will be substantially reduced in the coming decades, however large-scale technological change and more efficient use of energy resources and extraction of raw materials, including from beyond Earth’s orbit, could halt the worst effects of this changing climate.

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Dominic M. Lawson

Geopolitics, international affairs and technology. Follow me on Twitter @DominicLawson